When push comes to shove, an artist or writer may feel that it has become urgent “to decide in whose service he is to place his activities.” The words are Walter Benjamin’s, from his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer.” His observation raises innumerable questions, among them how the author knows whether the service he intends to offer will be accepted. And if it is, does it ever become necessary or possible to withdraw one’s service? The essay, which was never published in his lifetime, represents Benjamin at the height of his flirtation with orthodox Communism, though he realized that the affair would never be consummated. The text was conceived as a lecture at the Paris Institute for the Study of Fascism, organized under the aegis of the Comintern, but some scholars believe the lecture was never delivered. The paradox is a cruel one: A searching analysis of the public function of the author was destined for the drawer. What in the essay Benjamin unctuously calls “the circle of our friends” never would open to include him. The only society he could think of joining was one that would decline to accept him as a member.

The problem Benjamin set himself was that of the relationship between what he calls, in the language of the day, a work’s “tendency (or commitment)” and its “quality.” Is there a relationship between these two things, or are they fundamentally separate? What Benjamin wants to show is that “the tendency of a work of literature can be politically correct only if it is also correct in the literary sense.” It is thus, he continues, a question of technique—not “good” or “bad” technique as it might be measured according to some eternal standard, but rather “a progressive development of literary technique, or…a regressive one.” Benjamin suggests that in Soviet Russia, a singularly self-­conscious artist like Sergei Tretyakov could play the role of an “operative writer,” writing in such a way “not to report but to fight; not to assume the spectator’s role but to intervene actively” in the great transformations taking place. There, Benjamin says, the direction of struggle may be clear. But he allows that in the West, under the rule of capital, “it should not surprise us if the writer’s attempt to understand his socially conditioned nature, his technical means and his political task runs into the most tremendous difficulties.”

It’s worth comparing Benjamin to his near contemporary Isaac Babel, who was born almost exactly two years later (July 13, 1894, rather than July 15, 1892). Like Benjamin, Babel was a supporter of the revolution; as a writer, he experienced the reconfiguring of the boundaries between literature and journalism that Benjamin detected in the case of Tretyakov. But by 1934, when Benjamin’s approach to the party was at its closest, Babel had no illusions left. That year, he addressed the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers, where the doctrine of socialist realism was officially adopted. In what Philip Guston, a great artist who idolized Babel, later characterized as “a lovely, ironic speech” (the word “lovely” sounding Guston’s own ironic note), Babel concluded by observing that “the party and the government have given us everything, but have deprived us of one privilege. A very important privilege, comrades, has been taken away from you. That of writing badly.” The author of Red Cavalry, unwilling to assume the officially designated “correct” technique and therefore seen to represent a regressive tendency, fell into an increasing silence that did not, however, spare him the inevitable: first, his arrest, and then, in January 1940, his execution. Tretyakov had met a similar fate in 1937.

In his own way, with his parsing of the correct and the incorrect in political and literary tendencies, of the progressive and the regressive, Benjamin harbored at least as much irony as his Russian colleague. He deployed the language of Soviet criticism with a strange delicacy, hoping to identify the possible grounds of accord with people whose thinking was quite different from his own. Unlike Babel, however, he may not have taken the true measure of those whom he was hoping to address. One might even say that, assuming he never gave his lecture, Benjamin had saved his soul. By 1940, when he set down his final reflections in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin knew that his former assurance in the idea of progress had been disastrously misplaced. To what extent could “The Author as Producer,” with its idea that the characteristics of writing well or badly—progressively or regressively—could be legislated with authority in a given historical situation, have been placed in the service of those who sentenced Babel to a bullet in the basement of the Lubyanka prison?

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Benjamin and Babel and their not-quite-parallel lives may not be the most obvious starting point for a consideration of Formalism and Historicity, the massive new book by the influential art historian and critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, a Harvard professor and one of the editors of October, the mandarin quarterly journal of art criticism and theory. Benjamin, yes—he’s one of Buchloh’s main reference points. “The Author as Producer,” he rightly says, “comes closest to the development of a factographic, Productivist position, as it had already been outlined in the late 1920s” by Osip Brik as well as Tretyakov, and which Buchloh praises in his account of postrevolutionary Soviet art. Babel, on the other hand, is passed over by Buchloh, even though one of his book’s subjects is the possible transformation of art from a means of contemplative reflection to direct intervention à la Tretyakov. To put the question bluntly: Can one champion the “Productivist” aesthetic of “The Author as Producer” without taking into account the fate of Babel (and of Tretyakov)?

Buchloh’s dozen long essays chart some of the vicissitudes of the artistic avant-gardes of the last century, but his avant-garde is very narrowly conceived: There’s hardly room in his history for the Fauves or Cubists, for the Harlem Renaissance or Abstract Expressionism (no Guston). His main concern is with two phases of modern art. The first occurs in the 1910s and ’20s with Duchamp and the ready-made on the one hand, and the development from nonobjective painting through Russian Constructivism to Productivism on the other. The second involves the post–World War II “neo-avantgarde,” from Yves Klein (Buchloh’s bête noire, “a petit bourgeois agent provocateur,” yet a figure with whom he seems to have an obsessive fascination) through Conceptual Art to the Pictures Generation of around 1980. Curiously, the essays themselves have been allowed to age in the cask, as it were; they were first published from 1977 to 1996, which makes them of similar vintage to Buch­loh’s previous doorstop, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art From 1955 to 1975, published 15 years ago.

That Buchloh’s canon is so circumscribed is not accidental. Most art, in his view, is regressive: “It is almost impossible to distinguish whether these artists who have programmatically committed themselves to producing a traditional art of the museum simply have produced a completely institutionalized discourse, or whether it is not the institutions themselves who have produced these artists…. Their latent, if not unconscious ideological agenda wants to defy any notion of culture as a process of a constant contestation of power formations, or as an intrusion of suppressed meanings into official accepted representations.” This passage is typical of Buchloh’s diffusive, lumbering style, which, as vague as it is accusatory, conveniently allows almost anyone to be snared by the indictment or to be let off at will. What counts as a “traditional art of the museum,” for instance: any painting or sculpture? Or just those works that are representational rather than abstract, though the museum readily accepts the latter as well? And who are the people making this art? All are guilty until proved innocent; their “latent, if not unconscious” intentions are transparent to the critic’s X-ray vision.

When Buchloh derides more or less all of modernist and contemporary representational art, from Giorgio de Chirico’s pittura metafisica to Neo-Expressionism circa 1980, as “a masquerade of alienation from history, a return of the repressed in cultural costume,” the vehemence of his condemnation is impressive until one considers how all-encompassing it is, and how easily it might be turned into praise. After all, maybe the repressed should be encouraged to return—and who’s to say that being alienated from history is categorically bad? Yet as slippery as Buchloh’s rhetoric may be, the object of his fulminations is, at times, clear enough. Klein is an easy target, given that he was an incorrigible mystifier who really did take a reactionary political stance. But Buchloh, who maintains that it’s impossible to “evaluate any artistic production without considering at the same time its manifest political and ideological investments”—and who also feels certain that he can detect its unconscious agenda—forgets that the artist’s politics are not necessarily those of his art. That Balzac was a royalist did not prevent his writing from having a revolutionary effect, or so Marx and Engels believed. Buchloh, by contrast, thinks he’s made his case by citing Klein’s “crypto-fascist statements.” He accuses Donald Judd, who admired the Frenchman’s blue monochrome paintings, of a “patently formalist” approach, and—pot calling the kettle black—considers Judd’s promulgation of autonomous art as an “authoritarian prohibition” of his own brand of Ideologiekritik. But while Buchloh would be happy to prohibit Judd’s attentiveness to form, the latter at least accounts for why Klein is still worth talking about today.

The wonder of this book is that the critic who thinks an artist’s work can be evaluated by the yardstick of his conscious or unconscious politics is also profoundly incurious about the true motivations of artists in their historical situations. To take an example almost at random, Buchloh is certainly right in thinking that some of Carlo Carrà’s Futurist works, in their abstraction and incorporation of writing, are forward-looking, while his later art, under the influence of de Chirico, manifests an intense nostalgia. But it’s only interesting to attend to his and de Chirico’s “requests the return to the ‘classic’ tradition and the ‘masters’ of that tradition”—­Buchloh himself is a master (or, as he would have it, a “master”) of the gratuitous scare quote—if one notices their utter (and salutary) incapacity to do anything of the kind. It’s the gap between what these artists claim to want and what they actually do that fascinates, that helps make their work so needful of interpretation yet so resistant to it. Besides, it matters that Carrà was simply a mediocre abstractionist, while his more conservative later paintings carry conviction. Carrà’s Futurist works effervesce with the excitement of an encounter with ideas he could never really make his own; yet his melancholy fascination with a monumental tradition that he could only salute from a distance was, by comparison, relatively clear-eyed and candid. These are two different ways of being a minor artist, and it seems absurd to sermonize about which is better, although I know which one I prefer.

Just as the “formalism” of Buchloh’s title seems to evade any engagement with form, so his “historicity” remains void of historical depth. One might say that his formalism and historicity are to form and history as moralizing is to morals: a false-bottomed or empty container. In writing about the Soviet art of the 1920s and ’30s, he demands the highest historical consciousness of the artists he considers, yet he writes as if Lenin and Stalin were no more than vague ghosts hovering in the background, along with any lived experience of the processes of industrialization and collectivization. Bukharin and Trotsky don’t merit mention, and the New Economic Policy, the purges, and the first five-year plan are practically irrelevant. All that matter are the technical choices made by artists, on which Buchloh lays enormous weight—what he elsewhere calls “these radical shifts of the period between the wars, with such decisive selections of production procedures, iconographic references, and perceptual conventions.”

Speaking of artists’ decisions about how to situate their work “within,” as Benjamin would have it, rather than “vis-à-vis the productive relations of its time,” Buchloh asks (and without a shred of irony): “Should we not assume that every artist making these decisions would be aware of the ramifications and consequences, of the sides they would be taking?” What wonderful powers of divination, what tremendous cunning they must have had, the artists and writers of that distant day. It seems that despite what Benjamin experienced as “the most tremendous difficulties” of arriving at a coherent position, they can all be presumed to have achieved a thoroughgoing awareness of the import of their every decision, as well as a complete understanding of their likely outcomes! Babel would have been as surprised by this idea as Benjamin. Or maybe not—because while it seems to accord the artist a certain power of prophecy (a very Russian tendency), it is also the position of the state prosecutor who demands the severest possible sentence for the accused on the grounds that he should have been aware of all the terrible consequences of his heinous act.

Buchloh is a shrewd prosecutor, no doubt: There is always some incriminating statement at hand, and alibis are easily challenged. Another of his targets is Naum Gabo, the Russian Constructivist who deserted Moscow for the West and art for art’s sake, as opposed to his colleagues like Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, who became “Productivists,” remaining in the Soviet Union to serve its propaganda machine. Buchloh has no problem dismissing with a wave of the hand Gabo’s account of his experience in the postrevolutionary period: “The party’s hostility soon became very disturbing. We were attacked from all sides and no longer had the right to reply. To do so would have meant prison. Our only remaining choice was exile.” For Buchloh, Gabo was merely the rightful loser of a debate among artists; no party officials were needed to determine that artists like him had, in Lissitzky’s words, “ended up in a kind of fetishism of materials and forgot the necessity of a new plan.”

It’s true enough that, with the benefit of hindsight, and in order to make himself look more heroic, Gabo might have been exaggerating the dangers he’d personally faced, having left the Soviet Union before the cultural shift toward social realism came to a head. But he is certainly reporting with accuracy what others experienced when, as one historian puts it, “Party critics declared war on those modernist influences that had helped to shape the work of ­Malevich, Chagall, Tatlin, Rodchenko, and a score of others.” Among the artists who remained in the USSR, few met the fate of Babel or of writers like Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, and Pilnyak—but we should remember those who did, among them Vera Mikhailovna ­Ermolaeva, Lev Salomonovich Galperin, and Gustav Klutsis. For Buchloh, it seems, such things never happened: After all, “an artist such as Tatlin, who did not work for the state agencies, continued to live his private, if economically miserable existence without harassment.” I wonder what he thinks about the dour still lifes that the onetime visionary of the Monument to the Third International took to painting in disillusionment with the political project to which his Constructivist art had been umbilically tied? Would Buchloh really dare to say that the political and artistic choices of those artists who threw in their lot with Stalin were more justified?

Finally, one needs to ask: At whose service has Buchloh placed his work? On behalf of what imaginary state has he made himself the prosecutor, judge, and jury? Although he reserves to himself the right to render judgment on the historical validity of any artist’s oeuvre—and while appearing to do so on political rather than aesthetic grounds, on tendency rather than quality—­his own commitments are curiously obscure. Is he a Marxist? Buchloh never declares himself as such, and his observation that “both traditional Marxism and standard liberalism exempt artists from their responsibilities as sociopolitical individuals” offers no clue as to what those responsibilities (for the artist or anyone else) really are. In the absence of any concrete political program, the demand for artists to take on “sociopolitical” responsibilities seems like an invitation to nothing but empty posturing— a politicism without politics. At least Babel knew according to what standard his writing was deemed bad. It was a different standard than Buchloh’s, that’s for sure.